Fifty years ago, the American Century and the Cold War peaked together in a glorious, terrifying few years still remembered as “Camelot.” America was asked what it could do at home and abroad. The Soviet Union marched in the vanguard in space flight and geopolitical conflict. New and newly-powerful nations were choosing sides or forging their own paths in the shadow of Armageddon.
That world gone by, so quaintly different from yet so very like our own, offers us powerful lessons in the power of vision and the visions of power.
To understand the great currents that rushed through that terrible gauntlet of October 1962 and out to the end of the post-war dreamworld, we must go back a decade before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After Korea brought the early Cold War near to boiling, in the 1950s a dark tension settled over the planet—a darkness sporadically illuminated by outbursts of conflict and terror.
In the aftermath of the unsatisfying armistice in Korea, the Eisenhower White House sought a comprehensive approach to the struggle with the Communist bloc. “Project Solarium,” a highly-classified series of meetings and reports undertaken in mid-1953, produced the grand strategy of “containment”—America’s new approach to the USSR.
Containment strategy drove the high-yield expansion of the American nuclear arsenal, a diplomatic surge of new alliances and treaties and the intensification of covert special operations. On Aug. 19, 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, was overthrown with the help of the CIA and MI6.
Two months later, the National Security Council issued directive NSC 162/2, which said the United States needed to maintain “a strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive striking power … the United States will consider nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions.” Our emphasis.
On March 1, 1954, the Castle Bravo nuclear test fueled disaster in the Pacific. Expected to yield six to eight megatons, the first U.S. dry-fueled thermonuclear device peaked instead at 15 megatons—250 times more powerful than expected. The four-mile-wide fireball vaporized a part of Bikini Atoll while the intense radioactivity trapped the firing crew in their bunker 30 miles from ground zero.
The blast spewed radioactive debris into the stratosphere and hundreds of miles downwind, heavily contaminating nearby Rongelap and Rongerik Atolls and the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese trawler. Dying fishermen, radioactive tuna and U.S. secrecy about Castle Bravo gravely damaged relations with Japan, coming less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The accident imprinted the term “fallout” on the public consciousness.
Later that spring, the French colonial enterprise in Indochina collapsed with the fall of Dien Bien Phu. As Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and his troops out-humped, out-thought and out-fought the French, a worried U.S. Pres. Dwight Eisenhower added the “domino theory” to the new lexicon of the Cold War.
Dien Bien Phu led to another unsatisfactory denouement and another country bifurcated into Communist north and Free World south. The end of colonialism in Indochina also prodded Algeria—France’s closest colony—to push for freedom.
But containment cut both ways in geopolitics and culture. Though the United States enjoyed much greater freedom of action than the Soviet Union in everything from geography to resources to cultural output, American society seemed to deal with the era’s danger and change by circumscribing itself.
Observers then and now noted the intensity of domesticity and conformity during the “Happy Days,” when suburban life and consumerism bloomed into lifestyles and unorthodox opinions were shushed or worse. Reassurance was the watchword, reassurance that the American Way was good and secure. One man was ready to provide that reassurance.
Walt Disney was a very American character—a combination of visionary artist, hard-headed executive and brilliant salesman who built an empire upon a mastery of new technologies bent to traditional ends. Having risen far from his roots as an enthusiastic young animation geek in the dawn of that art form, Disney was now ready to leverage his dominance of animation into much grander entertainments.
In 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney followed through on a movement out from the virtual into the real world. To bring Jules Verne's steampunk undersea vision to life, Disney artists and craftsmen had to design and engineer complex props, including an hydraulically-animated giant squid.
But Disney had much more in mind than merely bigger films. He would offer the American people a place where they and their kids could spend time in a living cartoon, a magical kingdom brought to life outside the noonday world of angry masses and hydrogen bombs.
It would be a gated community of fun and entertainment. People would pay for the privilege of visiting and that was the American Way, to be celebrated in this permanent World’s Fair of nostalgia and optimism.
But how to pay for the Magic Kingdom? Walt Disney decided to embrace TV, and in several deals secured the funding for Disneyland via a new television show of the same name. Although the Disney Studio’s output was prodigious—and had been for two decades—more content was needed. Of all the theme park’s themes, Disney worried most about “Tomorrowland.”
Even the most up-to-date forecasts of the future might become outdated or fanciful, so Disney sought real experts. He found a bright, charismatic, exceedingly accomplished German immigrant, a man both an expert in his field and a natural media personality. With Wernher von Braun the Disney Studios created a series of films that popularized space travel and made it credible.
As German scientists in World War II, von Braun and his team had developed the V-2 rocket that killed thousands in London and Belgium. They were also working on the Jupiter and Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles for the Pentagon. But those rockets were not what Disney wanted to celebrate. Instead, Disney turned the spotlight on space travel, a prospect that in the mid-1950s seemed both fancifully far off and reassuringly within grasp, as soon as America was ready to reach for it.
America’s grasp was leisurely then. Several agencies tinkered with plans for launching a satellite into orbit, but there was little urgency. The ICBM program, championed by Eisenhower himself, moved along despite frequent setbacks. The U.S. military’s real Sunday punch was Strategic Air Command with its new B-52 Stratofortress and B-47 Statojet bombers.
Stanley Kubrick was another American character who hailed not from the WASP Midwest, but from the Bronx with its messy jumble of immigrants. Like Disney, he was drawn to advanced imaging technology; at 17, Kubrick got himself a job at Look Magazine on the basis of an unsolicited photo shoot. His first film was a low-budget war flick. Kubrick later disavowed this early work, but his chops were good enough for Kirk Douglas.
Douglas produced and starred in Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s 1957 film about French soldiers tried for mutiny during World War I. Coming on the heels of Dien Bien Phu and the humiliation of the 1956 Suez Crisis, during which France was booted from the Middle East, the film was a blow to French esteem. Paths of Glory was banned in France.
Oct. 4, 1957. Suddenly all that space stuff became very real when the Soviet Union boosted Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit. Experts explained that any rocket that could put a Sputnik in orbit could also drop a hydrogen bomb anywhere on Earth. To counter the Soviets, the U.S. government turned to von Braun. His team used a Redstone rocket to successfully lobbed the Explorer 1 satellite into orbit in February 1958.
A week before after Sputnik’s technical triumph, a nuclear waste tank exploded and caught fire at Kyshtym in the USSR, resulting in the third-worst nuclear accident ever after Chernobyl and Fukushima. A week after Sputnik’s launch, a reactor caught fire at the Windscale nuclear facility in Britain. Both Kyshtym and Windscale created plutonium for atomic weapons.
In 1958, Charles De Gaulle was elected President of the Fifth Republic and ordered France to get the Bomb. In December, just as he commissioned the first U.S. civilian reactor in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, U.S. president Eisenhower announced a unilateral moratorium on American nuclear tests. The U.K. promptly followed suit, having strained to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Soviet premier Khrushchev ordered suspension of Soviet tests shortly thereafter.
That year also saw the publication of Red Alert, a fictionalized account of the first hours of a nuclear war. In February 1958, a mid-air collision between a U.S. Air Force B-47 bomber and an F-86 fighter over Tybee Island, Georgia, resulted in a Mark 15 H-bomb falling into the Savannah River. It has never been found.
For two years, it looked like the guarded tension of the times might ease enough for that glorious tomorrow of space flight and atom-powered abundance to dawn. Maybe the Cold War could be confined to movie hi-jinks by Cary Grant and James Mason. Maybe the darkness would remain outside the walls of Disneyland.
The next decade began with hope. In 1960, Eisenhower planned to end his presidency with a major arms-control summit with Khrushchev, building on the moratorium on atmospheric nuclear tests the U.S., U.K. and USSR had observed. Though the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the USSR led to the summit's embarrassing cancellation, the test moratorium held until France announced its entry into the nuclear club with a huge 60-kiloton shot in the Algerian desert that year.
Kirk Douglas also got a surprise when he asked Stanley Kubrick to take over direction of Spartacus. Douglas, who’d successfully challenged the Hollywood blacklist to get Communist Dalton Trumbo working again as screenwriter, found himself challenged when Kubrick masterfully seized command of the picture. The experience left Kubrick so strained that he left Hollywood for Great Britain, never to return.
The nuclear powers observed the moratorium until after the June 1961 summit in Vienna, where an aggressive Khrushchev sized up newly-elected President John F. Kennedy. “I know for certain that [he] doesn't have a strong background, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge,” the premier said of the new American president.
At that time the Communist world basked in the triumph of Yuri Gagarin's history-making spaceflight and smirked at America's counter-revolutionary debacle in the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Khrushchev resolved to further test the United States and its leader. Kennedy in turn vowed not to get pushed around again.
On Sept. 1, 1961 the USSR abruptly broke its moratorium with a 21-kiloton atmospheric nuclear test, the first of many that summer and fall. Just before Halloween, the Soviets frightened the world with the “Tsar Bomba,” the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested. The 52-megaton monster overshadowed the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test in space a few days before.
The American response began that same September with the first underground tests of Operation Nougat in Nevada, while plans were made to test high-yield designs developed during the moratorium. In addition, there would be “all-up” tests of deployed nuclear weapon systems to demonstrate their effectiveness.
Kubrick’s next film exemplified the complexities of the time. Lolita was based on a famous Russian's novel and pushed the confines of Western mores in ways they would be shattered in the new decade. Kubrick shot the film in the U.K. after encountering great resistance in his Puritan homeland. Lolita certainly wasn’t the sort of entertainment Uncle Walt approved of.
On May 6, 1962, the ballistic-missile submarine USS Ethan Allen fired a Polaris missile loaded with a 600-kiloton W-47 warhead a thousand miles downrange over a Pacific test range. And two days after Cuba and the Soviet Union signed a defense pact on July 7, America’s “Starfish Prime” atomic test successfully detonated a nuke in space 248 miles above Johnson Island, creating the world’s first wide-scale electromagnetic pulse (EMP) burst.
EMPs are oversized outbursts of atmospheric electricity. Whether powered by geomagnetic storms or by nuclear blasts, their resultant intense magnetic fields can induce ground currents strong enough to burn out power lines and electrical equipment.
Gravely concerned about the nuclear threat, Kubrick chose to adapt the novel Red Alert into his next film. After working on the script for months, he and his producing partner realized that the subject was so dark that only satire could address it properly. The deadly-serious book Red Alert became the black comedy film Dr. Strangelove.
As if to underscore the deadly nature of the instruments being readied, the next nuclear space shot went horribly wrong. Seconds into the launch countdown on Johnson Island on July 25, 1962, a Thor missile malfunctioned and the range safety officer destroyed it on the pad.
The resulting explosion scattered plutonium, missile parts and burning fuel across the launch area, destroying and heavily contaminating the complex. Months of cleanup and rebuilding were required before testing resumed in October.
While the Americans were still testing their guns, the USSR moved to hold a knife at America’s belly. In April 1962, just as the Operation Dominic test series began in the Pacific Ocean, Khrushchev decided to secretly place offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.
Although Soviet ICBMs could lob much heavier bombs than equivalent U.S. missiles, there were many fewer of them. If the USSR could place some of their shorter-range IRBMs near to the continental U.S., without detection before they were operational, they could increase the Soviet Union's deterrent threat.
The United States’ long, contentious relationship with Cuba grew dangerously sour with the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s embrace of the Communist bloc. Successive Yankee efforts to topple his regime, culminating in the abortive Bay of Pigs adventure, drove Castro east in search of allies.
This embrace escalated the long-standing anticipation and fear of a U.S. invasion. On Aug. 8, 1962, Cuba announced it would seek help from USSR to defend itself from the United States.
On July 12, 67 Soviet technicians arrived in Cuba; on Sept. 8 the first SS-4 missiles were unloaded from Soviet ships in Havana Harbor. On Oct. 4, the first shipment of one-megaton warheads for the IRBMs arrived. More nukes were on the way.
After placing the continental U.S. at risk of a surprise attack from the south, the Soviets’ secondary task was to deter an invasion of its Caribbean ally. An invasion force of 150,000 troops would have to be stopped on the beaches, while their assembly points on the U.S. mainland would be attacked by missiles and bombers.
To accomplish this with only 45,000 troops and technicians, the Red Army planned to use small “tactical” nukes. Years later, historians would learn that the Soviet commanders in Cuba had at their disposal 36 Hiroshima-strength surface-to-surface rockets and a dozen basic cruise missiles with two-megaton warheads.
The Soviet bombers in Cuba—42 Ilyushin Il-28s—were being uncrated at a Cuban airbase when a U-2 overflight photographed them Oct. 15, 1962. Their arrival had been suspected since August, when recon photos of Soviet Cuba-bound freighters picked up odd-looking crates. Il-28s could have struck targets in Florida or at sea with six 10-kiloton tactical bombs, nicknamed “Tatyanas”.
Air defense was a U.S. Army job, and it had come a long way since guns and searchlights fought the first Zeppelin raids over London during World War I. The prospect of massed bomber formations full of hydrogen bombs winging their way over the North Pole spurred both superpowers to develop fast, powerful missiles to shoot the other guy’s planes out of the sky.
The Nike Hercules missile system was deployed at over 200 missile sites across the continental United States; a few of these sites are accessible today in urban parks like the Santa Monica Mountains and the Marin Headlands. The 47-foot-long, two-stage missile, powered by a clever clustering of smaller rocket motors, could go from 0 to Mach 1 within its own length upon leaving the launch rail.
Intercept altitude was up to 100,000 feet, meaning anything Red lower than a satellite was going to get shot out of the sky. To be certain of taking out massed Soviet bomber formations, some Nike Hercules missiles were equipped with W-31 nuclear warheads with yields up to 40 kilotons.
On Oct. 14, 1962, a U.S. U-2 spy plane took almost a thousand photos that revealed the Soviet missile installations in Cuba. The following day, the Army’s 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions as well as the 1st Armored Division began preparations for deployment to Florida.
To deal with the Il-28s, the 2nd Missile Battalion of the 52nd Air Defense Artillery Brigade received official orders to deploy to south Florida. The battalion arrived at Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami on Oct. 31 and began assembling its missiles.
Throughout this gauntlet of events, regularly-scheduled activities proceeded … and some nearly triggered catastrophe. On Oct. 22, 1962, the day Kennedy went public with the U.S. knowledge of the missiles in Cuba and announced a naval “quarantine,” the USSR tested an eight-megaton weapon. The U.S. armed forces went to their highest-ever state of nuclear alert. Strategic Air Command put 6,000 megatons aloft aboard B-52 and B-47 bombers on 24-hour standby.
On Oct. 24, a Soviet satellite exploded in space for unknown reasons. The following day, the U.S. “Bluegill Triple Prime” shot detonated a sub-megaton warhead 31 miles above Johnson Island. On Oct. 26, a routine U-2 flight over Siberia not only went forward, but almost got shot down by nuclear-armed Soviet interceptors.
That same day, two American Titan missile tests launched went ahead as scheduled, even though all other Titans sat on alert in silos, loaded with city-busting warheads.
But even with the frantic pace of testing underway during the crisis, not everyone was ready for nuclear war. The air-defense battalions dispatched to Florida were not yet certified for nuclear warheads. The Pentagon certainly didn’t want anyone to know—and devised clever deceptions.
Nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules missiles were fitted with a peculiar and ornate finial at the tip of their noses: a vaned, balanced, softball-sized object vaguely like a shuttlecock. This odd-looking device was a safety mechanism that ensured the nuclear warhead did not fully arm itself until the missile was at high altitude.
Its delicate vanes were protected during deployment by a red fabric covering, and thus nuclear-armed Nike Hercules missiles were distinguished from their conventionally-armed siblings.
When the 2nd Missile Battalion arrived at Homestead Air Force Base on Halloween, the Crisis had passed its climax and Khrushchev had ordered the Soviet missile to be removed from Cuba. But with the inexorable momentum of a glacier, the grim business of preparing to shoot down Soviet bombers proceeded.
The batteries of the 2nd Missile Battalion prepared their equipment and drilled their troops, their missiles sporting bright red canvas hoods on their tips, regardless of their actual war load. Whether or not Cuban intelligence agents spotted the missiles, their true power—or lack thereof—was hidden.
On Nov. 4, 1962, Battery B of the 2nd Missile Battalion, the only battery detailed away from the unit during the Cuban Missile Crisis, launched a nuclear-armed Nike Hercules into the skies above Johnson Island. The all-up air-defense system test went perfectly and the 10-kiloton explosion produced a brilliant beautiful jellyfish-like cloud in the upper atmosphere. It was the last U.S. atmospheric test.
Across the Atlantic, Kubrick and his film crew were recreating some of the terrors the world had just endured. With little official cooperation coming from the Pentagon, the filmmakers had to make them up. One of the four sets for Dr. Strangelove was the interior of a B-52.
At the time, a B-52’s insides were classified. Armed with only a single public photo of a B-52 cockpit and access to an old B-29, the British set-builders cooked up a bomber interior so realistic that at one point Kubrick feared a visit from the FBI.
In the spring of 1963, Kennedy and his advisers wrestled with the approaching reality of a Chinese Bomb. After considering a variety of options, including clandestine airdrops of Taiwanese saboteurs into nuclear facilities, Kennedy’s team reluctantly concluded that there was no way to safely take out or slow down China’s effort. The military aid to India that Kennedy contemplated after the Sino-Indian War was scaled back and the Pentagon tweaked its contingency plans for massive nuclear strikes against China in the event of global war.
That fall, the horrible tensions latent in American society spiked with Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Dr. Strangelove was going to premiere in Los Angeles that day, Nov. 22, but its debut was quickly re-scheduled.
The Nike Hercules battalions settled down in Florida for good, a dedicated defense against any future bomber threat from the south. Permanent launch sites were constructed by the Corps of Engineers in 1965 and the units were nuclear-certified in 1966.
Even today we continue to learn of the justification. Historians have discovered that as late as Nov. 22, 1962, Castro pleaded with the Soviets to keep the tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. But the Soviets no longer trusted Castro with the Bomb, and soon fewer and fewer officials in Moscow trusted Khrushchev.
Khrushchev was deposed in a bloodless coup led by Leonid Brezhnev less than 18 months after Kennedy’s death. Two days after his removal, on Oct. 16, 1964, the People's Republic of China detonated its first nuclear device and became the world’s fifth nuclear power.
By then Disney, like his audience, was much more interested in life on Earth than adventures in space and had embarked on a vast, secret new project in Florida. While the studio was creating iconic theme-park attractions to celebrate American corporate futurism at the New York World’s Fair, Disney’s agents bought up vast tracts of swampland through shell companies.
If the sellers had known the identity of the buyer their prices would have shot up, but Walt was always a canny businessman.
In 1965, Disney paid a visit to NASA’s huge new rocket testing site in Mississippi at the express invitation of von Braun. The German scientist wanted to boost the U.S. space program with another round of space-themed Disney shows. Two photos from the meeting say it all: there at ground zero of the moon race with the rocket man who charmed Kennedy, Disney looks tired and bored.
Walt was focused on the ultimate container: an entire world of planned urban living, a Disney suburbia designed by imagineers now hailed as America's next urban planners. Who could worry about Armageddon, pollution or social unrest in a Walt Disney World? Behind the gates of the magic kingdom, all that over there could stay over there.
Kubrick, however, had become as fascinated with space and science fiction as he’d been with thermonuclear war. By 1965 shooting was in progress on his next film, 2001, which took all the wonderful zoomy Tomorrowland tropes of hi-tech easy living—fly Pan Am to the orbiting Hilton!—and juxtaposed them with damned dirty apes and psychedelic space flights. Disney’s disenchantment became Kubrick’s trip.
The same spring as Disney’s visit with von Braun, 100,000 GIs and Marines hit the beach in South Vietnam.
George Jetson might live in a great society in a great big beautiful tomorrow, but the culture that produced all that had nearly committed suicide and, within a decade, was torn apart by its own contradictions. The illusions, bubbles, deceptions and denials that sustained the rush to tomorrow undermined postwar America and helped solidify a public suspicion of big government, big projects, big wars and big business.
But a paradox emerges in the very act of retrospection. Looking back upon that dynamic, stylized, anxious era of a half-century past, we realize that the End of the World really was averted, and the republic did not perish from the face of the earth. The audience got to watch the bombs explode at the end of Dr. Strangelove and still return to the theater alive and whole for Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.
We’ve steadily out-waited Armageddon for almost three generations. There’s no guarantee that the Bomb won’t fall in our lifetimes or even in the next hour. The proliferation of ideas and technology, the geopolitical realities that states factor into their strategies, all point to a nuclear-armed future for some time to come. Yet our past provides concrete proof that survival and growth is possible, even under a shadow.
In mourning the loss of hope and glory symbolized by Camelot, the Space Age and Walt Disney’s worlds, we can take heart in new research on nostalgia versus progress. Americans, at least, are more likely to support environmental and social causes when reminded of their nation’s long illustrious past, its crowning achievements and bedrock principles.
If The Future didn’t quite pan out the way it was expected to in the 20th century—where are our flying cars and flights to Mars?—a remarkable amount of that imagined world is with us now. 2001’s video chat from orbit and the astronaut’s iPad are bits of Tomorrowland tech we take for granted today.
An understanding the events and lessons of the early 1960s could point a way towards a re-imagining of our own era.
[I am indebted to Charles D. Carter for his account of the 2nd Missile Battalion of the 52 Air Defense Artillery Brigade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.]